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Kingdom through Covenant-Interview with Stephen Wellum, Part 1

Interview by Matthew Claridge—

We are delighted to have with us today (and tomorrow!) both Stephen J. Wellum, Professor of Systematic Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Peter J. Gentry, Professor of Old Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In Part 1 of this interview we talk with Stephen Wellum about this groundbreaking book, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants. Wellum and Gentry propose a biblical theology of the covenants that avoids covenant theology and dispensationalism, and instead seeks to move beyond the biblical and theological impasse.

The preface mentions several other recent works that have attempted a “whole Bible” theology. What makes Kingdom through Covenant distinct from these other recent contributions?

Let me suggest two ways KTC is distinct. First, it argues that central and foundational to reading the Bible on its own terms is getting right the unfolding nature of the biblical covenants and their interrelationship to each other as they culminate in the coming of Christ and the new covenant. In our view, biblical theology is not simply about unpacking biblical themes across the canon and doing it in a variety of ways. Rather, biblical theology is a hermeneutical discipline which seeks to understand God’s unfolding plan the way the Bible itself unfolds that plan. To be “biblical” in our interpretation and application of Scripture entails that we “put together” the pieces of Scripture the way the Bible does. It is our conviction that properly placing the biblical covenants in their own redemptive-historical context—seeing how they are interrelated and how they unfold the biblical story—is central to this task since it is central to how the Bible unpacks the whole counsel of God. Not all books on biblical or systematic theology do this.

Second, KTC is distinct from other works in that it offers in more detail than previous works, a true via media between dispensationalism and its varieties and covenant theology. Even though we are certainly not the first to articulate such a mediating position, KTC probably does it in the most comprehensive way to date, even though much more work has to be done in the future.

In your initial chapter you coin a new term to describe the theological system you are developing: “progressive covenantalism.” What do you want conveyed by this term?

In teaching KTC, students often ask: “what do you call this ‘new’ position that is neither dispensational theology nor what we would associate with Reformed, covenant theology?” I have struggled to answer such a question since any label you give often can be misunderstood. I say in the book that our view is a species of “New Covenant Theology” but unfortunately that label can mean many things to many people. Teaching at a Baptist seminary I often humorously describe the position as “Baptist theology” but of course, given that Baptists differ widely on a whole host of issues and that some Baptists are dispensational and some more covenantal, that label will not work either. So, a student at Southern Seminary, Richard Lucas, suggested “progressive covenantalism” which has affinities to “progressive dispensationalism” but also distinguishes our view from it. By adopting this label, we are trying to convey the fact that to grasp God’s unfolding plan and thus the metanarrative of Scripture, we must attend to the biblical covenants. In addition, we must not only understand the covenants in a synchronic way, we must think through how the biblical covenants unfold the biblical storyline diachronically. Given that God reveals himself to us over time, and Scripture does not come to us all at once, it is absolutely necessary to trace out God’s plan from creation to new creation by unpacking how the biblical covenants reveal in a progressive, unfolding way who our Triune covenant Lord is, and most importantly, how all the biblical covenants find their culmination, telos, and fulfillment in our Lord Jesus Christ.

“Covenantalism” stresses that apart from the biblical covenants we will not understand fully the plan of God and the glory of what our Lord Jesus has accomplished in his inauguration of the New Covenant. “Progressive” emphasizes that God’s one, eternal plan which we now come to know and participate in due to his sovereign and gracious actions on the stage of human history, has come to us over time and that it is crucial to think through the “before” and “after” in God’s plan centered in the biblical covenants if we are going to properly interpret and apply the Bible to us today.

Typology is clearly an integral component of the promise-fulfillment pattern in Scripture. How does tethering typology to the covenants help mitigate against rogue figural exegesis (e.g., Scarlet thread of Rahab points to Jesus; Absalom caught in a tree points to Jesus; tent pegs in Tabernacle point to Jesus, etc.)?

Most people admit that typology is one means by which God unfolds his plan and brings all of his sovereign purposes to pass in Christ. As various persons, events, and institutions are introduced into history, they point beyond themselves and find their fulfillment in Christ, with then further application to us as Christ’s people. In working through the biblical covenants we were struck with the fact that most, if not all, of the typological patterns of Scripture are organically related to the covenants. So, if we are talking about various persons—Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, priests, and so on—each of these persons is developed covenantally. The same may be said about various events such as the Exodus, or institutions such as the priesthood and the tabernacle/temple, kingship, and so on; these too are unpacked across the Bible’s storyline in relation to the biblical covenants. What also struck us is that in tethering typology to the covenants this provides the needed biblical warrant for these typological patterns which avoids rogue figural interpretation. By thinking through how these typological patterns are developed covenantally, we discover better the intertexual development which is crucial in providing proper biblical warrant for typology.

Another important piece of hermeneutical method you are using is the “three horizons.” Could you unpack for us this phrase and how it provides a “thicker” method of reading Scripture?

The “three horizons” is not new to me; in fact, I borrowed it from Richard Lints who largely was indebted to the Westminster tradition of biblical theology which has come to us through the pioneering work of Geerhardus Vos and those who developed his thought in subsequent years. The “three horizons” is simply seeking to do justice to the fact that Scripture, and thus God’s revelation of his redemptive plan, does not come to us all at once. God’s redemptive plan and revelation occurs over time and given this fact, it is crucial that we interpret any text of Scripture first in terms of its own immediate context (textual horizon), then in terms of where that text is in God’s unfolding plan (epochal horizon), and then finally in light of the entire canon and the inauguration of the new covenant in our Lord Jesus Christ (canonical horizon).

To read Scripture in this way, as my old professor Kevin Vanhoozer used to stress, is not merely an interpretive option; it is the interpretive way that best corresponds to what Scripture is, namely God’s unified, inspired Word as progressively given to us. Unless we read Scripture this way, we will rip texts out of their context and fail to see how those texts reach their terminus in Christ. We will make Scripture to be nothing more than a “wax nose” which can be bent at will, instead of seeking to read and apply Scripture according to God’s ultimate plan and intent. I am convinced that the “three horizons” allow for a proper theological reading of Scripture which is true to the Bible and thus a thicker reading of the entire canon of Scripture. As the “three horizons” are applied to our interpretation of the biblical covenants, what we attempt to do is to interpret each biblical covenant first in its own immediate context, then locate that covenant in terms of what preceded it in God’s plan, and then finally to ask how all of the biblical covenants unfold and unpack God’s redemptive plan which has come to fulfillment in Christ. Until we do this, it is our conviction that we will fail properly to grasp both the continuity and discontinuity of God’s glorious plan of salvation and its application to us, living where we do in redemptive history.

Could you explain for us why you think viewing the covenants as either “conditional” or “unconditional” is problematic and actually deflates the dramatic tension of Redemptive History?

A common way of dividing up the covenants is in terms of “conditional” (bilateral covenant, suzerain-vassal) or “unconditional” (unilateral, grant covenant). As we worked through the biblical covenants we discovered that this distinction is not only difficult to maintain in text after text; in fact, to divide the covenants in this way really begins to miss one of the main points of the storyline of Scripture. No doubt, it is only because God takes the initiative to save, makes promises which he alone fulfills, that redemption comes to us at all. Yet, as God created humans in his image to be his vice-regents, and as all the biblical covenants involve God’s relationship to his image bearers, God demands nothing less than obedience from us, and hence the stress on the “conditionality” of the covenants.

Whether we are speaking of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David—God demands obedience from all of his creatures and particularly his covenant mediators and partners. But, given sin, this is where the problem begins to arise and the tension begins to increase. Our covenant Lord demands obedience from us, but we do not render it. God promises to save and to unilaterally act, but he also promises to bring about redemption through an obedient “son.” However from Adam on, where is such an obedient “son” to be found? God’s promise of salvation, all the way from Gen 3:15 on anticipates the provision of a human who will undo what Adam did, but as each covenant mediator walks on the stage of human history, they all fail. Yet, God’s promises will not fail, and as the covenants unfold it becomes more clear that our glorious promise-making and promise–keeping God will fulfill his oaths through the provision of a greater, better, and more glorious obedient Son who does not fail. In such a provision of this Son and his crowning and effective cross work for us, we have brought together God’s unilateral promise to save in and through the obedient Son of God. In Christ and him alone, we have the Lord himself who saves but as God the Son incarnate. These grand and wonderful truths, as well as our incredible Redeemer, are all underscored better if we let the biblical covenants unfold themselves in this way, which no doubt creates tension—a tension which is ultimately resolved in Christ and the inauguration of the glory of the new covenant.

Explain the difference between your view of the Genesis account as a “covenant with Creation” rather than a “covenant of works.” Is it not true that there was no grace offered before the fall, only the condition of obedience?

Our problem with the “covenant of works” designation is primarily over what it can mistakenly convey if we are not careful. Many people view the “covenant of works” as a testing of Adam who, if he obeys, wins favor or merit before God and is thus potentially confirmed in righteousness. Our problem with this is that it does not adequately convey that all God’s dealings with his creatures are gracious; that Adam was in favor with God prior to the Fall; and that it wrongly pits obedience vs. grace, and so on. No doubt, given the entire plan of God, what takes place in Eden was not God’s ultimate plan for the human race, yet Adam, as the covenant head and representative of the human race, was in favor with God and thus at rest, yet had everything to lose by his disobedience. So, in the end, it is not what the “covenant of works” affirms; it is more in terms of what it does not stress and present in a more positive manner. Other than that, we do think that there is a lot of truth in saying that Adam, as our covenant head, was called to obey, and that in his disobedience, brought sin into this world and all of its disastrous consequences upon the entire human race. It is for this reason that another and better Adam must come, God the Son incarnate, who will undo what the first man did, by obeying perfectly in his life and death, and thus securing for us eternal salvation.

I believe one of the most striking facets of your argument is how indebted both Dispensational and covenant theology are to an inordinate focus on the Abrahamic Covenant. Could you tease out for us this common line of dependence?         

As we began to think through how dispensationalism and covenant theology “put together” the biblical covenants, it was fascinating to see that both appeal to the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic covenant yet for different reasons. On the one hand, dispensational theology appeals to the “unconditional” promise of land given to Abraham, which they believe, is only fulfilled non-typologically to ethnic, national Israel in the future millennial age. Regardless of the lack of discussion in the NT on the land promise, they argue that given the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic covenant, the land promise must still be fulfilled in the future precisely because it is an unconditional promise. When covenant theology disagrees with dispensationalism on this point by viewing the land as typological of the new creation and ultimately brought to fulfillment in Christ who ushers in the new creation, dispensational theology charges covenant theology with reading the NT back on the OT without sufficiently doing justice to the unconditional OT promise.

On the other hand, covenant theology appeals to the genealogical principle of the Abrahamic covenant—“to you and your children”—as unchanged throughout redemptive history, and it is on this basis that they make their covenantal argument for infant baptism. In a similar fashion to dispensationalism, regardless of the carry over between circumcision and baptism in the NT, and regardless of the fact that there is not one example of infant baptism practiced in the NT, covenant theology argues on the basis of the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic covenant that one must not read the NT back on the OT at this point. Even though dispensationalism and covenant theology differ at certain points, they both appeal to the Abrahamic covenant to make their points and follow the same hermeneutic. For us, this not only illustrates how important it is to understand properly the biblical covenants, but it also reminds us that one must not treat the Abrahamic covenant in an isolated fashion from the entire canon and particularly its fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant.

One thing that is confusing for me personally is determining if there is a distinction between the role of covenant “mediator” and covenant “partner” and whether that has any bearing on how we put together the covenants. For example, in the Mosaic covenant, it seems fairly clear that Moses is the mediator of the covenant but not exactly the partner in the covenant–Israel as a nation fills that role {or, you can even say angels were the mediators, Acts 7.38, Gal. 3.19). In all the other OT covenants, it seems this distinction is not as clear-cut. God makes a covenant with Adam and his seed, with Noah and his seed, with Abraham and his seed, with David and his seed.                  

The relationship between covenant “mediator” and “partner” is not always easy to discern. To understand this relationship correctly one must work through the biblical covenants carefully and also remember the corporate structures of the Bible. For example, the covenant of creation is mediated through Adam as covenant head and representative of the human race, yet the covenant partners are all of us, as image-bearers, and “sons” of God in the representative and image sense. When one comes to the Abrahamic covenant, we can say that Abraham mediates it, yet it is made with his seed in a number of ways, uniquely with Isaac and then the entire nation of Israel. God demands obedience from all the parties involved, but we do have one who stands as the mediator of the covenant in a unique way. When it comes to Moses, we can view him as the covenant mediator, but once the covenant is up and running, various leaders in Israel, especially prophets, priests, and kings function as mediators of various aspects of the covenant. Israel as the “son” of God, and in this sense another “Adam” are the covenant partners, but the entire old covenant is tribal and representative in its structure—thus mediated—which is first anticipated in the unique role of Moses. Something similar could be said about the Davidic covenant, as the Davidic king in a very important way becomes the idealized Israel and representative of the nation. One must also remember that running through the entire covenants are developing typological patterns which ultimately point beyond themselves to Christ. So the balance between covenant “mediators” and “partners” is throughout the biblical covenants, which in a wonderful way, points us forward to Christ.

Covenant theology and Dispensational theology draw two different conclusions from the New Covenant. The former collapses Israel into the church and the latter excludes Israel from the church.  Where’s the error here?

We believe the error is ultimately found in Christology. That may seem strange so let me explain. As one works through the biblical covenants, all of the covenants and their mediators find their fulfillment in Christ. In Christ he is the last Adam, Abraham’s true seed, the true Israel who obeys completely, and David’s greater Son who does what no Davidic king ever did. In this way, all the promises to “Israel” as the “son” of God and typological pattern of Christ are fulfilled. Israel, in her role, loses nothing but finds her fulfillment perfectly in Christ. Dispensational theology often fails to recognize this point and thus does not see how Israel as a nation is the type which points forward to Christ as the antitype, and that the church now in relationship to Christ receives all the promises of God in and through her covenant head. In this way, dispensational theology fragments Israel and church because she does not unite them properly in Christ.

Covenant theology, in our view, grasps the Israel to Christ relationship better, but then does not see properly how the genealogical principle is transformed as Christ, the new covenant head, brings all the previous covenant mediators to their end, and stands as the head of his believing people. She does not also see that the covenant communities are also different, due to the difference between the old and new covenants. In this way, covenant theology moves from Israel to the church too fast, without first seeing how the covenants find their consummation in Christ, the true Israel, and thus the newness and greatness of what Jesus has won as our new covenant head, including the difference in the nature and structure of the covenant communities. In the end, we believe that the root problem of both systems is that they do not sufficiently trace out how the biblical covenants unfold, how all the types and patterns of the OT are fulfilled in Christ, and thus the better nature of the covenant our Lord Jesus has inaugurated.

Dr. Stephen J. Wellum came to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from Associated Canadian Theological Schools and Northwest Baptist Theological College and Seminary where he taught theology since 1996. He has also served as a senior pastor and interim pastor in South Dakota and Kentucky as well as a conference speaker at various engagements in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom. Dr. Wellum has written numerous journal articles and book reviews for various publications including the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, and the Reformation and Revival Journal. In addition, he has written articles and book chapters in Believer’s Baptism, Reclaiming the Center, Beyond the Bounds, and The Deity of Christ. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and the Evangelical Philosophical Society.

Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview with Dr. Peter Gentry!

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